The love we are to share - Romans 16:1-27
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
In his book, 'People centred Evangelism', John Havlik writes this: 'The church is never a place, but always a people; never a fold, but always a flock; never a sacred building but always a believing assembly. The church is you who pray, not where you pray. A structure of brick or marble can no more be a church than your clothes of serge or satin can be you.' In other words, church is to do with people. Now it is important to stress this because it is a truth which can so easily be lost sight of. It is only too possible to see church in terms of organisation, programmes, activities, structures, clergy, theology and even buildings and fail to see that at its heart, church is to do with relationships between people like you and me. Now, the passage that we are looking at together tonight, which at first sights appears so unpromising with its long list of strange sounding names, is a glorious reminder of this fact. Admittedly, having worked through this letter with its grand and lofty themes of the three 'shuns', justification, sanctification, glorification- being put right with God, being progressively made more like God until eventually we are brought into the presence of God, it would be all to easy to dismiss this final section as an inconsequential P.S. - of the 'please pass on my regards to Auntie Vera and Uncle Stan' variety. But that would be to make a serious mistake. One writer, Emile Brunner, has called Romans 16 'one of the most instructive chapters in the New Testament', because it is all about encouraging relationships of Christian love within the church. This, if you like, is the human face of the letter; these are real people, living in the real world in which the wonderful spiritual truths Paul has been dealing with are to be worked out. What we are presented with in this final chapter is like two pieces of glass. The first glass is a window through which we see the busy house churches of first century Rome, the city of 'Gladiator. And here we discover the sort of people they are, the types of things they are doing and more importantly, the kind of people God wants them to become. But secondly these churches also act as a collective mirror in which we are to see ourselves reflected and ask: 'Just how are we doing when it comes to this love which we are to share?'
The first thing we notice about these people is that they are part of a committed church. Even if they had them you do not get the impression that these people are simply passive pew fillers. They are active folk overflowing with commitment to Christ and each other. The early Christian church is clearly littered with them.
So we have Phoebe in vv 1-2. It is more than likely that she is the one who has been entrusted to deliver this very letter of Paul. She was making a journey to Rome, maybe on some other business, and Paul is keen that she is accorded a proper welcome by the church. She is to receive whatever help she might need- hospitality, advice, or whatever it may be. And Paul gives some good reasons why she is to be treated in this way. For a start she is described as a 'servant' of the church in Cenchrea, a port near Corinth. It could be that this was an official position, a 'deaconess', which is what the word 'servant' means. But whether or not she is formally a minister in this sense, coming from where she does she is nonetheless right on the coal face of Gospel work, it is as tough a place as you would find anywhere. So this is someone who doesn't just talk about mission, she is in the thick of it. And Paul says she has been 'a great help to many people, including me' and the word he uses for 'help' means 'patron', so Phoebe is no doubt quite well off financially, but she uses her wealth to assist God's people for Gospel work. She follows the simple rule, 'If you have got it, don't keep it - use it.'
And the lovely thing is that Phoebe isn't just a 'one off', you know, the kind of person people would dismiss as an 'enthusiast' who has 'got religion' and takes it all far too seriously. For you also have the husband and wife team Priscilla and Aquila in v3, a dynamic duo if ever there was one. This pair had literally risked their lives for Paul. That is how committed they are. Another couple Andronicus and Junias in v7 are relatives of Paul who have been in prison with him. These are also described as 'apostles' not in the sense that they are authoritative and inspired like Paul and Peter, but that they have been especially sent out by the church (which is what the word apostle means- sent out ones ) and so would be in our terms, missionaries. In fact Paul describes them as outstanding amongst the missionaries. Now what about having a team like that in your church? They would bound to get things moving wouldn't they? Then look down at verse 12 and Typhena and Tryphosa, women who work hard in the Lord, and Persis another woman (note) whom we are told worked very hard in the Lord. Did you noticed how many of those listed by Paul are women? Women have always formed the backbone of the church and so there is nothing new there, so let's not be cowered into embarrassment when that accusation is thrown at us today 'Oh. The church is full of women' as if there is something wrong in that. But, and this is where we may need to take stock , it is women that do often put some of us men to shame in terms of their willingness to serve the Lord and to take on some of the hard tasks that men aren't willing to touch-like working abroad for example. These are women who are integral to the life of the church. They are not sidelined to simply making the tea, as they are in some churches (of course we need tea makers! Don't get me wrong) but they are people who work hard in the Lord, that is in key ways which forward Gospel work.
Now tell me, from what we have seen so far, what impression do you get of this church? Is it not of a vibrant, dynamic movement for change with everyone pitching in? And I fear that by and large we in the West have forgotten that is what the church is meant to be. We see conversion as primarily a private transaction between 'Me and Jesus.' The writer Charles Colson puts it like this: 'When Peter made his confession, Jesus did not say, 'Good, Peter. You are now saved and you will have the abundant life. Be at peace.' Instead, he announced the church and established a divinely ordained pattern. When we confess Christ, God's response is to bring us into His church; we become part of his called-out peopleour commitment to the church is indistinguishable from our commitment to him.' And that's right. Did you notice how time and time again Paul speaks of these people as being 'in Christ' or 'in the Lord', If you are in him then you are in the church and that means giving your all to the church-which is Christ people.
But this is no stoic like, grin and bear it commitment, for here we also have an affectionate church. Now one of the dangers of belonging to a large church or a mega-church is that this aspect can so easily go missing. People can become another anonymous face lost in a sea of anonymous faces. In a large gathering it would be so easy to drift in and out without doing anything more than making a passing recognition of someone else. But to show true affection means that relationships have to be formed and that can only happen at the smaller group level. That is where you can take time to really get to know one another, enjoy each others company, and share the things that matter to you and so take steps to help each other. That is why we do have the small groups operating here- the home groups, TNT, youth groups, Wednesday at ten, Prime time and after eight's for women and Men at the Top for the fellers. These are not put on just for the sake of it, but to earth what we believe in face-to-face contact. And if you have not yet joined such a group let me strongly encourage you to do so and get stuck in. And what should flow from these is the kind of affection which is very much in evidence here in Rome. Look at how Paul speaks of some of these people: 'my dear friend Epenetus' (v5); Ampliatus whom I love in the Lord' v8; 'my dear friend Stachys' v9; the mother of Rufus in v 13 who has been like a mother to Paul. It just radiates loving affection doesn't it? It is a most endearing picture we have of the way these Christians viewed each other.
Now you will often hear it said that the word for Christian love is 'agape', which is more an act of the will than an expression of the feelings, and of course, there is some truth in that. Even when we do not feel like doing a thing, or do not find ourselves well disposed towards a Christian brother or sister who may be difficult to get on with, you still do what is going to benefit them regardless. Nonetheless, let's not go to the other extreme and push feelings out of the picture altogether. It may well be that is where you begin with some people- the will. It was C.S. Lewis who pointed out that within a Christian fellowship when you start loving people as an act of the will in due course you might end up actually liking them! But surely, there should be some affection between Christians, not least because on the whole Christians are lovely people to be with. I genuinely feel a tremendous of affection for the people here. There are some women in this church whom I do look upon as mothers, some men like fathers, and it is terrific to have some many brothers and sisters and belong to such a wonderful family. Sure, like any family we will have our shortcomings and struggles, but that is what makes belonging to a family such an important character forming adventure. This is not a club, it is a family. You choose the club you belong to so it is full of people with the same tastes and interests as yours, unless you are like Groucho Marx who said that he would never belong to a club which would have someone like his as a member. But you don't choose your family, it is chosen for you. And in this area of loving affection St John's has come up trumps in the kindness shown to my son Philip during his recent illness and I can tell you it has had a tremendous impact upon him and some of the medical staff. It was Duncan Campbell who said: ' What the world needs to see is the wonder and beauty of God possessed personalities; men and women with the life of God pulsating within, who practice the presence of God and consequently make it easy for others to believe in God.' And a crucial aspect of that is being affectionate to one another, a world which is caught going two and fro between impersonal indifference on the one hand and wanton hedonism on the other is bound to notice this and ask 'Why are these Christians different?' Why are they so kind and patient with each other?'
And to underscore how important this is, look at what Paul says in 16, 'Greet one another with a holy kiss.' J.B. Phillips in his translation paraphrases it this way, 'Give one another a hearty handshake all round for my sakes.' Of course, only a stiff upper lip Englishman could have written that! Yes, there are cultural factors to take into account in the way we express affection- Frenchmen may kiss each other, British men do not- so don't try it! And there are also matters of personality to consider too, we are not all 'luvvies' of the Dickie Attenborough type, gushing luvviness to all and sundry. However, I see nothing wrong, and in fact much to commend, appropriate and genuine expressions of Christian affection within a fellowship like this, after all Paul speaks of a holy kiss to guard against an abuse of this sort of thing. But if you are really British and can't cope with it, then a big hearty handshake will do.
A committed church, an affectionate church, but also a diverse church. You see here that the barriers which divide the world are not allowed to divide the church, a theme Paul developed especially in chapter 14. And this comes out in the throw away names that we find tucked away in this church membership list. One the one hand you have the meeting of town and country, Urbanus-v9, as the name suggests was brought up in the city, whilst the name Stychus, who is mentioned in the same breath, means 'ear of corn' and in all probability has come in from the Archer's country. Hermes, v14, is a slave name and yet in the very same church these slaves rub shoulders with the rich-Herodian-v11, of the powerful Herod family. The miracle is that folk from opposite ends of the social scale are embraced as brothers and sisters in Christ. Racially there is a mix too- the Rufus of v13 is almost certainly the son of Simone of Cyrene who carried Jesus cross and would have been dark skinned. And of course you have the great Jew-gentile divide come crashing down as Paul's Jewish relatives Andronicus and Junias stand side by side with Hermes, one named after one of the Roman gods. Do you see how what is the case in heaven where people from every nation, tribe and language are gathered around the throne of Christ singing his praise in unison, is to be mirrored in the local church? You know, the diversity of the church is one of its greatest glories and most potent testimonies to the power of the gospel. It reverses the effects of Babel where the nations are united in their rebellion against God and were scattered in judgement. In Romans 16 that rebellion has been overcome and the nations are united again in salvation. And one of the many privileges of belonging to this church at St John's is that the same rainbow of people's is represented here and only the Gospel can do that.
However, none of these things can simply be presumed upon and taken for granted, they have to be fought for in order to be preserved, and so this is to be a discerning church vv 17-20. 'I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.' Now here are people who are not to be welcomed with a holy kiss! These are people for whom we are not to have any affection, in fact the exact opposite- the command is to 'keep away from them.' You see it is by their teaching which is contrary to what the apostles have taught that divisions are caused and churches are destroyed. Whatever claim they may make to the contrary they are not serving Christ but their own desires. Sure, they have a most wonderful manner and smooth talk but that is what makes them so effective and so dangerous. This is why it is nonsense to treat those heretical bishops in America and Canada who are advocating gay relationships on the same level as those orthodox Bishops who oppose them, urging both to be considerate for the sake of church unity. The unity was already there based upon apostolic Christianity; the division is being caused by those who are changing the traditional teaching of the Bible. And so all that some of the African bishops are advocating in breaking off relations with such people is what Paul is saying must be done in Romans 16. We are now facing a situation in the Anglican set up in which the call of v19 is being turned on its head so that some are increasingly becoming wise about what is evil and innocent about what is good. Friends, the church can never rest on its laurels if it wants to remain the church as Christ wants it to be. Its leadership in particular must always be keeping a watch out for those who will corrupt belief and behaviour and so divide congregations. Such people can never be welcomed here; it would be irresponsible to give them a foothold, for our unity and life together is far too precious to be allowed to be wrecked because of someone's personal non-biblical agenda.
But finally this is a missionary church vv 25 -27. 'Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him, to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ.' It is the gospel which brought this church into being as people turned to Christ as Lord and Saviour and were joined to Christ and one another by the Holy Spirit. It is the Gospel which keeps the church in being as people are fed and nourished by its teaching, and it is the same Gospel which has been entrusted to the church as the content of its proclamation and the purpose of its existence, so that 'all nations might believe and obey him.' Paul ends his letter in the same way he began it, by reminding us that like God himself, we are for ever to be looking outward, never merely looking inward, working together as we reach out to a lost world with the Gospel, so that many more can enjoy this new relationship of love brought about by God through Christ. That is God's vision, and that is our calling. Let us pray.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.